France’s Military Base in the UAE

You might have seen that French President Nicolas Sarkozy was in Abu Dhabi to inaugurate a French military and naval base there. (Le Figaro here, Le Monde here.) Then again, you might not have. The base, which has been in the works for the past year, is the first permanent overseas French installation not located in one of its former colonies. Also significant (to the French probably more so than to the British) is that the UAE is a former British colony, making the arrangement something of an “encroachment” on the Anglo-Saxon sphere of influence.

Although the announcement last year raised some eyebrows, France and the UAE have a longstanding defense relationship, including a bilateral defense agreement that will soon be reinforced. The two countries’ militaries engage in yearly joint exercises, and the UAE is one of France’s major arms clients. Indeed, Sarkozy will no doubt use his visit to lobby for a sale of French Rafale fighter jets currently under consideration, as well as for a civil nuclear agreement that was announced but never finalized last year.

The base, which will house roughly 500 troops and is capable of accomodating just a few frigates at once — is modest, even by French standards. But its placement is significant for a number of reasons. To begin, it is directly across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran. The strategic logic cited is to deter an Iranian attack against the Emirates.

But while the UAE and Iran have areas of discord and tension — notably over a territorial dispute that predates the Iranian revolution — they also enjoy very close commercial ties. Indeed, Iranian businessmen use the Emirates as a transit point to get around the various sanctions regimes targeting Iran, and the Emirates have been accused of abetting technology transfers into Iran. In other words, the UAE has more of an ambivalent relationship with the Islamic Republic than an adversarial one, and is something of a fence-sitter, if not quite so much as its neighbors Qatar and Oman.

The base, then, serves French — and Western — interests vis à vis Iran more than those of the UAE, and will be especially useful as a listening station. As for its deterrent function, that will be more aerial than naval, since it is on the “wrong” side of the strait, i.e. the interior side that would be bottled up in the Gulf in the event of an Iranian riposte that closes the strait to maritime traffic.

More importantly than contingency plans for Iran, as I wrote last summer, the base signals the initial shift of France’s strategic footprint from Africa to the Persian Gulf and, especially, the Indian Ocean area. It will serve as a port of call for France’s increasing naval presence in the region, complementing and expanding the reach of its base in Djibouti. It will also serve as a layover on the way into Afghanistan and South Asia.

It puts France in the heart of the “crescent of instability” that is the strategic focus of the West’s — and the world’s — military commands. Keeping in mind its modest proportions, it’s interesting to note how few nations could conceivably put the equivalent in place, both militarily and diplomatically. Under Sarkozy, France has reawakened its ambitions to be a global player. But to be a player, you’ve got to get in the game. For France, Abu Dhabi is the equivalent of checking in at the scorer’s table.